The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was marked by a trio of events in downtown Juneau.
For many it marked a return to in-person observance for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those present at three separate events enjoyed community commiserated over shared experiences and remembered lives lost.
“This is our family here now”: Alaska Native vets commemorate Veterans Day
Alaska Natives have long played a major role in the U.S. military. Of the 1% of America’s current population that is active in the military, Alaska Native and Native American people have the highest per-capita involvement of any population and serve at five times the national average.
That long history of service was recognized Friday as the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans hosted its annual Veterans Day Luncheon at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alaska Native veterans from Southeast Alaska communities joined together in commemoration and honor of those who served and continue to serve in the U.S. military.
“It’s good that we can all come together,” said Roger Sheakley, a Tlingit Vietnam War veteran from Hoonah. “We lost a lot of family and friends, and now is a time for sharing love for our family — this is our family here now.”
The event also honored Ethel Lund, an Alaska Native leader and pioneer in extending health care for Alaska Native people in Southeast Alaska, who passed away early Friday morning. She was 91.
The event featured keynote speaker retired Army Maj. Gen. Richard Mustion and guest speaker retired Army Lt. Col. Christine Youngquist who traveled to Alaska to speak to the crowd.
“You are such an integral part of who we are,” Mustion said. “I am in awe of your experiences and service to our nation — I’m humbled to be in your presence today.”
Cmdr. Wm. Ozzie Sheakley, the event’s organizer, said since 1992 the event has been held to bring Alaska Native veterans together to commemorate their time in the service while also celebrating the culture of Southeast Alaska they share.
“These are the guys that came back,” Sheakley said. “It’s good to greet them all.”
Of the more than 100 people who attended the ceremony and lunch, among them were Jerry Bennett and James Jack Sr., who took a stroll down memory lane while sitting next to each other, along with their respective family members. Bennett and Jack both served in the military during the Vietnam War – Bennett in the Navy and Jack in the Army.
Though the two served in separate branches of the military, they have shared a bond since childhood growing up in Southeast Alaska with fathers who were seine boat fishermen. Even as decades have passed and they went their separate ways in the military, the pair said they have always remained close.
“We’ve been friends forever, but when it comes to Army and Navy games we don’t talk to each other,” Jack said laughing.
Jack said it’s special for him to come together with friends, family and other veterans from Southeast Alaska. He said when he first came back from serving in the 1960s there was little to no recognition from people in the communities. He said the event is a step in the right direction to bring veterans together to find community with one another and to acknowledge their sacrifices.
“It’s good to see recognition for veterans is being more and more upfront now,” Bennett said. “What this means is more recognition and this is sort of a ‘thank you’ for us veterans and I really appreciate it.”
Feeling the warmth again
For Korean War veteran Mickey Lesley, Veterans Day is about giving thanks just as much as it is about hearing it.
“I appreciate this every year,” Lesley said. “It’s really nice to see the folks come out and just feel a kinship to all of the other veterans.”
Juneau’s American Legions/VFWs honored Veterans Day on Friday at Centennial Hall, marking the organization’s first in-person observation of the holiday since the pandemic. American Legion Auke Bay Post 25 Commander Duff Mitchell said while they’ve managed to carry on the ceremony through radio the last few years, nothing can quite compare to sharing the occasion face to face.
“We’ve been doing it on the radio for the last couple of years, but this is the first gathering we’ve had; we wanted to continue it, but this is the first one live,” Mitchell said. “The radio is great, we know a lot of people are listening, we reach a lot of people, but this is something else, you can feel the warmth here of being in person.”
Mitchell led the ceremony along with assistance from Veterans of Foregin Wars Post 5559 Taku Post Commander David Carroll. The program featured a presentation of the colors, the Pledge of Allegiance, a singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by soloist Elizabeth Djajalle, prayers led by Chaplain Lt. Col. Kirk Thorsteinson, an address delivered by Lt. Col. David Jurva of the Alaska Army National Guard. and closing remarks from Mitchell.
Lesley, 88, has been in Juneau for 55 years, long enough to refer to herself as a “sourdough.” While in the Air Force during the Korean War, Lesley said she worked as a cryptologist, specifically assisting with code work. Lesley said Veterans Day is especially important to her because it offers an opportunity to relate with people, who may even be strangers, but are all united by a common experience and bond.
“It’s people that know the same thing and talk about the same thing,” Lesley said. “I belong to the American Legion, and we’ve all been through the same thing in a different way, but same thing. They know where you were and what you did and you can’t talk to anyone else about it because they have no idea what you’re talking about.”
According to Mitchell, while it’s important to remember Veterans Day, it’s also important to remember the differences between the days set aside to recognize those who have served and sacrificed for the country in various ways.
“Veterans Day is different from Memorial Day, today is the day that you thank a veteran for their service. Memorial Day is where we reflect on those that have passed and gave it all, so today is the appropriate day to say thank you for your service,” Mitchell said. “When people join, they join for many reasons but they all serve, and it is a sacrifice but it’s also the binding foundation of our democracy. So, it’s just a day to say thank you, it’s also a day to say thanks to the families that served with that service member. Juneau really supports its veterans, we have a strong, vibrant veteran community and we have a lot of support for veterans.”
The toll of war
When people say “thank you for your service” to Gene Miller his first reaction is “I’m deeply offended.”
Miller, a Juneau resident for more than 40 years who was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1971, said the first time he heard those words was a couple decades later by a paraplegic veteran with no legs who gave a local speech. Since then “it’s been sterilized – it just rolls off the tongue” during everything from veterans’ holidays to routine safety briefings by flight attendances.
“If someone says it from the heart, then I’m deeply moved,” he said.
Miller was among about 20 veterans, family members and supporters at the Alaska State Capitol at 11 a.m. for the annual Armistice Day ringing of the Liberty Bell replica in front of the building. Lacking an official permit this year due to logistical complications, they clustered close on the snow-and-ice clogged sidewalk to avoid blocking street traffic, some using canes and walking sticks to move about during a 15-minute speech and song prelude before lining up to ring the bell.
Juneau Veterans for Peace President Craig Wilson, who has presided over event in previous years, said the message of President Dwight Eisenhower when he changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
“Instead of promoting an enduring peace we’re told to support the troops, forgetting that the best way to support them is not to use them as blunt-force foreign policy tools, sending them to be killed while invading other countries,” Wilson said. “Instead of remembering their sacrifice, I can show a VA card and get a free cup of coffee.”
Arriving late (due to the precarious conditions) as the last of those gathered were ringing the bell was Jay Crondahl, an enlistee during the late 1950s and Wilson’s father-in-law. After being the last to ring the bell this year, he said that while he agrees with the spirit of Eisenhower’s message, he can also find common ground with soldiers and others who argue today’s military is engaged in important dutities.
“We do have a mission in the world, that we might be able to protect people from military issues that aren’t their fault at all,” he said.
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